In June, I attended another class by Nabeel Jabbour in Kansas. His class is ordinarily taught at seminaries and titled “Islam and the geopolitics of the Middle East.” He now makes his class available for free to those who invite him to teach in their city. He has invited me to attend his class multiple times with the hope that I’ll be able to teach the material myself someday. I’ve decided to write up a summary of some of the important points from the class just to give you a taste. Disclaimer: everything that follows is written by me, not by Nabeel Jabbour. I alone am accountable for any mistakes.
We learned that the Muslim World can be described using this metaphor of a scale or see-saw pictured below. Some Muslims, roughly 10%, are moderate or open-minded. They promote a form of Islam that is peaceful and is open to ideas from the outside and they simply want to live at peace with their neighbors. They choose to interpret their faith in such a way that emphasizes the peaceful teachings of Islam. On the other end are the 20% who can be described as fundamentalists. Only a small fraction of fundamentalists is violent, but all fundamentalists interpret the Qur’an very rigidly and lean toward the harsh interpretations of the Qur’an toward non-Muslims. Open-minded/Moderate Muslims are usually more willing to explore the truth claims of the gospel because their interpretation of the Qur’an is generally pro-Christian, pro-Bible, and promotes some components of the biblical understanding of Jesus. Fundamentalists, however, tend to be more resistant to the gospel because their very interpretation of the Qur’an is much harsher toward Christians, the Bible, and the biblical understanding of Jesus. The remaining 70% of the Muslim World is “The Silent Majority”. These Muslims are undecided where they stand on this moderate vs fundamentalist spectrum, they’re just focused on living their daily lives and aren’t as concerned with how they practice their faith. For many of them, Islam is just a culture they were born into. Moderate Muslims and Fundamentalist Muslims are constantly competing with each other to win The Silent Majority to their side. This is important for Christians and for American citizens to understand because we have a role to play in determining which side will attract The Silent Majority. Additionally, I’ve come to believe that American Christians in particular have perhaps a greater role to play in swaying The Silent Majority than we’ve ever realized.
Fundamentalists have a simple strategy to recruit The Silent Majority onto their side: to show them that Western (or American) ideas and societies are incompatible with Islam and that the West is the enemy of Muslims. As an example of how this strategy has been implemented, Osama bin Laden said that one of the purposes of the 9/11 attacks was to draw the United States into long, costly, bloody wars in the Middle East in order to convince Muslims that America is indeed the enemy of Islam. However, most Muslims were horrified by the 9/11 attacks, empathized with America, and opposed Osama bin Laden’s excessive violence. Because of this miscalculation by bin Laden, Al Qaeda was on the run and nearly extinct by the beginning of 2003, until the United States invaded Iraq. As America declared war on Iraq, bin Laden was elated and felt that America had finally given him an enormous opportunity. Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s bin Laden Unit, said that, “U.S. forces and policies are completing the radicalization of the Islamic world…the United States of America remains bin Laden’s only indispensable ally.” Suddenly, the ranks of jihadist organizations began swelling, eventually leading to the formation of ISIL (a.k.a. ISIS). The message that America unintentionally sent to the Muslim World was: “Osama bin Laden is right, we are your enemy.” The inevitable result is that many from the Silent Majority, who had no fundamentalist or militant leanings, became radicalized. Even today, many of our nation’s anti-Muslim policies are affirming the fundamentalist message and tipping the see-saw in their favor, which will only lead to more violence and less openness to the gospel.
Another helpful metaphor I learned from Dr. Nabeel Jabbour is that terrorism can be compared to mosquitos. You could kill an entire generation of mosquitos, but they’ll only return stronger and more resistant than before if the swamps are not drained. America has tried to kill off entire generations of terrorists, but the next generation has always been worse. The only way to effectively eliminate mosquitos is to eliminate the swamps where they breed. America’s strategy has never been effective because we focus on killing the terrorists themselves but refuse to address the swamps that breed terrorists. Our media often tells us that terrorists hate America because of our values. Michael Scheuer tells a much different story, “The focused and lethal threat posed to the U.S. national security arises not from Muslims being offended by what America is, but rather from their plausible perceptions that the things they most love and value…are being attacked by America.” He also said that “America’s stubborn obtuseness in failing to see the counterproductive nature of its policies toward the Muslim world is a powerful force-multiplier for bin Laden and those he leads and inspires.” He then argues that “U.S. policy status quo in the Muslim world ensures a gradually intensifying war for the foreseeable future, one that will be far more costly than we now imagine.” In other words, our policies toward the Muslim World are the swamps. As long as we choose to fight terrorists without addressing the swamps, we will see no real victory and the Fundamentalists will continue to win the hearts and minds of The Silent Majority. Bin Laden himself said in 2004, “Thinking people, when disaster strikes, make it their priority to look for its causes, in order to prevent it happening again…But I am amazed at you [Americans], Even though we are in our fourth year after the events of 9/11, Bush is still…hiding from the real causes.” We’ve been killing mosquitos and ignoring the swamps.
Bin Laden said that if you want to understand his life, you should read The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright. Wright tells about bin Laden’s teenage years, when he would watch the news about the suffering of Palestinians and weep. According to Wright, bin Laden’s hatred for America really began in 1982, “When America permitted the Israelis to invade Lebanon and the American Sixth Fleet helped them. [Bin Laden] recalled the carnage: ‘blood and severed limbs, women and children sprawled everywhere…the situation was like a crocodile meeting a helpless child, powerless except for his screams…As I looked at those demolished towers in Lebanon, it entered my mind that we should punish the oppressor in kind and that we should destroy towers in America in order that they taste some of what we tasted.” Most Islamic terrorists do not see themselves as terrorists, but, according to Wright, they see themselves “as revolutionaries who, like all such men throughout history, had been pushed into action by the simple human need for justice.” Osama bin Laden’s story of how he came to hate America is typical of many terrorists – they can usually trace it back to an historical event of American complicity in acts of injustice. This is not to excuse their violent response, or to say that we are solely responsible for terrorism, but to understand that our actions have played a role in creating this endless cycle of violence.
One significant swamp is the widespread torture practices used by the United States against suspected terrorists, depicted graphically in the photos leaked from Abu Ghraib. It is worth noting that all of the torture methods shown in the Abu Ghraib photos were directly approved by Donald Rumsfeld himself, rather than being anomalous acts carried out by rogue prison guards. Alberto Mora, the former general counsel of the U.S. Navy, put it this way, “The first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq – as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat – are, respectively, the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.” Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent who has gained an international reputation as a top counter terrorism operative and interrogator, says that, “Harsh treatment of detainees in U.S. custody, particularly when documented on film, fed directly into the terrorists’ own lie that the United States was waging war against Islam and would stop at nothing in its determination to humiliate Muslims.” Ali Soufan has pointed out that ISIL (a.k.a. ISIS) still puts their captives in orange jumpsuits before executing them because Guantanamo’s prisoners wore the same kind of orange jumpsuits.
Although there are several “swamps” that we could spend a great amount of ink and paper describing, experts seem to be in agreement that the injustice and suffering experienced by Palestinians is by far the most significant swamp. One of my personal heroes, Joseph Cumming, says that it’s a miracle that there are any Palestinians who are not terrorists when you consider what they’ve been through. Unfortunately, our media has failed to give us a fair and balanced look at what’s actually happening in Israel/Palestine. A close look at history and current events reveals a process whereby Palestinian lives are being systematically destroyed – a fact that is now being affirmed by many Israeli Jews, who witness the suffering of their Palestinian neighbors and desire to correct the injustices in their own government. While it’s impossible to really dive into this issue in such a short space, it’s worth mentioning that American Christians hold incredible power and influence over what happens in Israel/Palestine. Every act of injustice experienced by a Palestinian is seen in the Muslim World as an injustice supported by American Christians.
I find it vitally important that we, American Christians, understand our role in creating these “swamps” so that we can correct our mistakes and move forward in a way that resembles our master Jesus. I’m not suggesting that we negotiate with terrorists, but simply that we prioritize justice, as we should have been doing from the beginning. I believe we would not be in this mess with terrorism to begin with had we been committed to justice and peace all along. As we seek justice and pursue reconciliation, we will find a Muslim World much more open to our message about Jesus.
Michael Bryant is married with two daughters (and a third daughter due in August 2018!). He lives in Chicago, where he works for a Christian organization serving immigrants. He is passionate about lifting up Jesus as the hope of the nations, inviting American Christians to take up Jesus’ attitude of compassion toward foreigners, and helping immigrants and refugees build a new life for themselves in Chicago. He also serves as an officer in the U.S. Army National Guard and is known by his friends as an avid reader.